All posts by Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

About Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and her Intersections Facebook page. She is a retired minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and past president for Coffee Party USA. Charlotte also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach at her Living in The Story website.

Weep With Those Who Weep

These are words from the Bible that challenge me. It’s not that I need to be instructed to weep; that my heart stays hard and my eyes stay dry when the world around me swirls in terror and chaos. But rather that I weep so easily these days. My heart breaks into a thousand pieces and cries out in anguish: “It’s too much.” Constantly weeping with the always—weeping world drains my tears and sucks me dry.

I know full well how helpless I am in the face of global trauma. In the presence of anyone’s trauma, for that matter. So the terror and the pain overwhelm and threaten a whirlpool of despair in me. The biblical words to “weep” challenge me because this empathy comes too naturally for me these days so that too often I sink into some dark place weighted down by the world’s pain.

“Empathic distress” is the term I’ve been hearing recently, a description that seems to name my struggle precisely.

Empathy seems like a positive, healthy characteristic: feeling the feelings of another.

And, yes, empathy is a good thing, a positive ability to understand someone else’s situation and to share in their experience. Parents, caregivers, even actors sharpen their skills when they engage in empathy.

But of course there are limits to how much empathy any of us can manage. We wisely erect emotional boundaries, safeguards that protect us from merging too deeply into another person’s life and personality. Boundaries that save us from an unhealthy blurring of what we need with the needs of others.

When empathy finds its limit, when we find ourselves distressed and depressed by absorbing others’ emotions as our own, thank goodness we can still demonstrate care and concern. We can still weep with those who weep in the way of the biblical encouragement by feeling and showing compassion.

Adam Grant wrote an insightful essay for the New York Times in which he warns against empathic distress and encourages us instead toward compassion. “Empathy makes us ache,” he says. Empathy causes us to feel another’s pain while compassion helps us to see their pain—and then to reach out. To reach out and DO something.

The most basic form of compassion is not assuaging distress but acknowledging it. When we can’t make people feel better, we can still make a difference by making them feel seen. And in my research, I’ve found that being helpful has a secondary benefit: It’s an antidote to feeling helpless.

Sometimes compassion calls me to solidarity for people far away. Sometimes compassion makes me a near companion on someone’s difficult journey. Always compassion nudges me to DO something, not just to wallow in my feelings of helplessness.

That’s one reason why I volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children (CASA). I can’t do much of anything for the children in Ukraine or Gaza or Yemin. But I can do something for (at least) some of the children in Paris Texas: I can see them, hear them, and not shy away from the discomfort of their pain.

When too much “I-feel-their-pain” triggers distress, when empathic distress overwhelms and threatens to numb our senses, let’s choose to “see-the-pain” with eyes wide open but from some healthy distance. Let’s keep hearing the cries, listening compassionately, and acknowledging the pain of the world without taking it all into ourselves and making it our own.

And then let us take the next step: reach out and do something for someone. Do what we can with what we have where we are. Weep with those who weep. Genuine compassion feels something and does something.

I would love to hear what you are doing in response to the overwhelming pain of the world. How do you cope? How do you help?

Is Christmas Religious or Secular? Both/And . . . Of Course.

Arguing over whether Christmas is sacred or secular is a mammoth waste of time in a season that is so short and so lovely. Yes, Christmas has been a major feast of the Church for hundreds of years and yes, it still is. But, yes, Christmas (especially in the U.S.) has been Santa Claus and reindeer and mistletoe for a lot of years as well.

Let’s all chill and enjoy the season however anyone wants to celebrate it. (Sorry for the “chill” pun for those of you who may be snowed in today!)

Since I’m a Christian, I enjoy Advent and Christmas with children dressed as angels and shepherds and wise men. But I also love Santa and wreaths and trees sparkling with tiny lights, ornamented with memories of our children, grandchildren, and travels to places around the globe.

People who are not religious (of course) share in this season’s joy and hope and love and generosity. One doesn’t need to be religious to buy Toys for Tots or serve dinner at a local shelter or enjoy lively family gathering around tables ladened with good food. One doesn’t have to agree on (or even care about) where the various traditions originated in order to take pleasure in the wassail, carols, and feasts.

Since Christmas is a legal holi-day, of course it’s secular. I hope you get to enjoy some time off with your friends and family and maybe a Christmas bonus from your company. But since Christmas is also a holy-day, I hope you will ponder the odd scene around the manger. Jews and Gentiles, poor and wealthy, insiders and outsiders, humans and animals, natives and travelers from afar – a powerful picture of Creator’s good and great inclusiveness.

Let’s all keep our hearts open to the universal call of Christmas: “peace on earth, good will to all!” Have a lovely day today! ~Charlotte

In a Dry and Weary Land

When I was preparing to preach for the third Sunday of Lent and exploring the Lectionary texts, the words of the poet of Psalm 63 leaped out at me.

O God, you are my God, I seek you! My soul thirsts for you. My flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

I’m thinking this describes how many of us have felt over the past difficult months; through the last several (really) weird years. And now another horrific war raging in Europe. My faith in my God hasn’t really been shaken, but my faith in my fellow humans certainly has been.

There are many many things to grieve these days but, as a Christian, I admit much of my chagrin has to do with the perversion of faith I see playing out in much of American Christianity. I thought the unholy matrimony of faith and politics would fade away in time, but—no—it seems too many of my sisters and brothers are digging in their heels. I grieve all the ways the name of Christ is being taken in vain.

Our gospel reading this morning comes at the end of a long discussion about judgment and justice; about punishment and grace. Throughout chapters 12 and 13, Luke’s Jesus challenges the disciples and the crowds with surprising notions of who God is and what the kingdom of heaven is all about. Again and again, Jesus urges his listeners to get ready and stay ready for the coming reign of God.

You’ve heard all this many times before.

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not become known.

Lk 12:2

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes. If he comes during the middle of the night and finds them ready, blessed are those slaves. Truly I tell you, the master will . . . have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.

Lk 12:37

If the owner of a house knew a thief was coming, he would be ready. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Lk 12:39

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Lk 12:48

And that brings us to our gospel text for this morning.

We hear some people in the crowd voice their concerns about a recent event involving the brutal governor, Pilate. In light of what Luke’s Jesus has been saying about judgment and justice, they want to know: what does this mean? Where is God in all these horrific events?

These may have been completely honest questions. There is, after all, so very much we do not, that we cannot, know about the workings of God in heaven and earth.

But then again, there’s a decent chance this group came with an agenda. There have always been—and always will be—people who ponder unfathomable mysteries and try to solve them with neat, tidy answers.

I know some of these people. I’ve had some of these conversations.

“So Jesus, did you hear about the man the police shot and killed because he was resisting arrest? He was Black, but that doesn’t really matter to me because I don’t see color. What I do see is that he must have been doing something wrong or else the police wouldn’t have shot him. Don’t you agree? Didn’t he get what he deserved?” *

And then Jesus preempts their next argument. “Are you also going to tell me that the hurricane that destroyed that city was because they were holding gay pride parades? Is that your idea of God’s justice? Do you think any of those people were worse sinners than you are?” *

No, Jesus says.

And he looks them in the eye; he looks each one of us in the eye and calls us to repent.

Now, I don’t know about you but I kind of take issue with Jesus here.

I’ve been in this dry and weary land, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and what I find in my neighbors is self-righteousness. I need to see justice done in this world and I look around and see self-justification. What does he mean that WE are the ones who need to repent?

Well, it turns out Jesus is not done with me. He goes on to tell a parable, this one about a fig tree that hasn’t been bearing figs. The tree hasn’t produced any fruit in three long years. It had its chance, the owner figures. What good is a fig tree without figs? So time’s up. Let’s cut it down. *

I get that, don’t you?

Except—when I look at that tree and see myself.

Struggling, stressed, too many fruitless days when I don’t get hardly anything worthwhile accomplished. Impatient, snippy, muttering under my breath and calling people snarky names when I read the news. Perversely happy to wallow in the poor-me’s that keep dragging me down into cynical cycles of hopelessness. Turns out I have been producing my own version of perverted faith, self-righteousness, and self-justification.

The Self Curving In

Martin Luther, and Augustine before him, defined sin as “the self curving in upon itself.” As I say in my book, Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace

This bending in upon ourselves is an embedded pattern that perpetuates itself from generation to generation. Awareness of these realities can spiral us down into despair. Or it can be the soil within which grace grows roots and redemption bears fruit.

Living in the story week 3 page 62

So I’m relieved when the gardener says: “Wait! Give her another chance. I’ll work with her. I’ll prune back some of those fruitless branches. I’ll root out the weeds that are sucking her dry. And I’ll fertilize. Let’s give her more time. I know she can come back from this barren place.”

Well, who knew that what I needed was a massive manure dump!

Who knew that all this sustained release manure we’ve endured these past years could help grow something healthy and good in our lives.

And why does that not surprise me. This is the God, after all, who brought light out of darkness and beauty out of chaos. This is the God who provided an ark of salvation to rise above the waters of destruction.

This is the Christ who transformed stumbling disciples into eloquent witnesses and confident martyrs. The Christ who took up his cross and walked straight into hell, trusting in God’s impossible possibilities.

For God’s people throughout countless years of The Story, dry and weary lands have been transformed into “soil within which grace grows roots and redemption bears fruit.”

This call to repentance echoes throughout all of Luke-Acts. Remember that Luke opened his story of the ministry of Jesus with the story of John the Baptizer calling the crowds to get ready for the coming kingdom. The fiery wilderness preacher thundered: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3).

The fruit of a repentant life, a life that is less and less curved in upon itself and more and more bent around the life of the Holy, this fruit, as Paul taught us, is generated by the sap of the Spirit coursing through every cell, creating new life on barren branches. Fruitful, productive acts of justice and righteousness that grow from love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

Because how does self-control grow anyway except in the experience of temptations? How does patient endurance grow except in the midst of trials? How do the tougher, resilient depths of love grow except in the presence of people? Even—and maybe especially—in the presence of unlovely, unloving people. ALL of us unlovely, unloving people for whom God gives unconditional love and for whom Jesus died.

The Prophetic Poet

“O God, you are my God, I seek you in this dry and weary land,” our psalmist professes.

These dry and weary lands that we pass through are absolutely real for us humans, but still the prophetic poet reminds us that something else is also real and true, another reality that is actually realer and truer than our human experience.

This other reality is the one to which we are invited to turn and orient our lives.

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,

beholding your power and glory.

Because your steadfast love is better than life,

my lips will praise you.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,

for you have been my help,

and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.


Sermon preached March 20, 2022 at Community Christian Church, Richardson TX

* Here’s the actual conversation in Luke 13 (NRSV): “At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Image of the fig tree comes from Diane’s Texas Garden in the South Hill Country.

Critiquing our Public Schools

Numerous raucous school board meetings across the country have made the news in recent months. If you really care about what is going on in our public schools, here is a list of suggestions for what you can do and how you can help.

Volunteer. Schools appreciate volunteers in classrooms and in the school library whether you have children in your local public school or not. Schools have always welcomed the partnership of parents and community members in our shared effort to help the next generations become responsible citizens and decent human beings. Your school administration may need to vet you and train you—a good sign that they are paying attention and taking care to protect our children.

Read to children. Help keep the library books organized. Chaperone field trips. Bring snacks. Help restock teachers’ supplies. Assist English-as-a-Second-Language students. Tutor for math or reading. Attend PTO/PTA meetings. There are a variety of ways to support your local schools, staff, and students.

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Christian Nationalism in a Nutshell

We’ve been hearing more about “Christian Nationalism” recently. I read a lot of articles about how intersections of faith, politics, and culture happen in our nation and it’s obvious to me that some of these connections are healthy and helpful while others are decidedly unhealthy and unhelpful.

We are fortunate in this nation that the Framers of our Constitution spoke quite clearly about this issue in the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

Thank goodness, religious freedom for us citizens is protected. We may practice any religion however we choose or we may choose to be non-religious. We may speak our mind in public and express our beliefs freely. We may attempt to persuade others to agree with us. Personal religious freedom is pretty much sacrosanct in our laws and in society.

But while we people are guaranteed these expansive rights, the other side of the First Amendment coin explicitly limits the power of government. The federal government and all state governments (since the Fourteenth Amendment) are prohibited from forcing upon us citizens any particular religion with its dogmas and practices.

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Asking Good Questions

Back when I was pastoring congregations, I would tell our church folks learning how to do youth ministry, “Your job is not to give young people answers. Your job is to help them ask good questions.”

Asking-Seeking-Knocking always has been how people of faith do faith well. Asking good questions is part of what it means to be human.

In my new book, Living in The Story: A Year to Read the Bible and Ponder God’s Story of Love and Grace, I tell my own story about discovering the life-giving goodness of questions. As a girl, I was taught that the right answers were more important than the questions, but as a young woman I learned I am the kind of person who needs questions more than I need answers. Now that I’m older, I realize that it has been in and by and because of the questions that I have grown to love the Bible even more.

One of the things I say in my book is that the Bible asks the big questions: Who is God? and Who are we? I think the Bible asks these questions because these are core questions most humans have been asking in some form or another throughout human history. We may call God different names, we may understand God in various ways, but the questions remind us that we humans will never fully grasp the mysteries of the universe. We may tend to focus on our human differences, but the questions push us to ponder how much we have in common.

Good questions nudge us to keep asking-seeking-knocking.

Honest questions keep us humble.

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Building More Bridges

Pittsburg, Pennsylvania is the home of 446 bridges, more than any other city in the world. The City of Bridges is also home to a small group of Muslims, only about 0.5% of the population. Maybe this minority status contributed to the 2018 attack on a high school Muslim woman wearing a hijab. This violence is one reason Ebtehal Badawi began her “Pittsburg Builds Bridges” art project.

Even though she herself is a Muslim, Ms. Badawi’s bridge paintings depict symbols of nine various religions and cultures demonstrating a wide range of different worldviews. She believes, as I do, that differences need not divide us. Our diversity can make us stronger, kinder, and wiser if we will ground ourselves in the basic truth of our common humanity.

“The reason these things happen, incidents of racism and bullying, is because people are afraid of people who are different,” said Ms. Badawi. “We need to accept those who are different, people who don’t look the same or share the same belief. We need to be open, to see the people in front of us.”

We need to see the people in front of us.

This is where bridges come in handy.

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Do Unto Others. Yes, even in Politics

There’s a little verse in the New Testament that pretty much sums up how we Christians are to live our lives: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7). The wisdom is not for Christians only, however, since versions of the Golden Rule are part of most every wisdom tradition. “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” is the way of Buddhism. “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others that which you wish for yourself” is the way of Islam. “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary” is the way of Judaism. Tragically, a cynical twist on the Golden Rule has enticed some people into a darker way: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

I’ve been watching with amazement as the U.S. Congress debated whether to approve an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the events of January 6, 2020, and I’ve seen this darker way play out before my eyes. Thirty-five Senators and 175 House members voted to block this investigation and therefore hide the hard truths of what happened on that fateful day. After years of clamoring for investigations into email servers and Benghazi, they seem to be living their lives and deciding their political opinions according to a scornful perversion of God’s own truth: “Do unto others before they can do it unto you.”

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Hard Won Not Done

Last year, in 2020, my Texas county celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote. “Hard Won Not Done” was our motto, and little did we know how true that summary would be here again in 2021.

In spite of the reality that Republicans won up and down the ballot in Texas last year, and that mostly Republican officials followed the rules, oversaw the process, confirmed its integrity, and certified the election results, polls reveal that a majority of Republicans believe our electoral process is insecure. Consequently, politicians in Austin currently are debating Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, legislation that is intended to tighten the rules and make it harder for eligible Texans to vote.

Republicans won. I scratch my head. What are they afraid of?

Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, spoke to this paradox. “It’s like a perpetual motion machine — you create the fear of fraud out of vapors and then cut down on people’s votes because of the fog you’ve created. Politicians, for partisan purposes, lied to supporters about widespread fraud. The supporters believe the lies, and then that belief creates this rationale for the politicians to say, ‘Well, I know it’s not really true, but look how worried everybody is.’”

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Stones and Glass Houses

There’s a fascinating little story tucked away in the Gospel of John about some accusers who brought a woman to Jesus; a woman “caught in the very act of committing adultery,” they claimed. (No one explained where the offending man was.) Their Law commanded a punishment of stoning, and so they demanded that Jesus weigh in and give his opinion. But he didn’t. Instead, the Bible says, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”

His silence must have been maddening. They wanted Jesus’ snap judgment, not his thoughtful reflection. When he was ready to respond, Jesus looked them in the eye and said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8).

I have a good friend who said something stupid on his personal Facebook page. He himself is not racist but he used a condescending racist slur to describe someone with whom he disagrees politically. It was a careless and thoughtless blunder, a “sin” that brought accusers out of the woodwork, all ready to stone him. Thank goodness he has a strong friends’ group who know him well and believe in him; friends who love him enough to hold him accountable. Thank goodness he is wise enough and humble enough to admit his mistake and work to make amends.

I wish more of my fellow humans loved one another and our society enough to hold each other accountable—not just for careless racist language but for actual racism. I wish more people would step up to confront the myriad ways our nation inflicts very real damage upon our Black and Brown sisters and brothers because of the dark threads of racism woven tightly into our social fabric. It’s so much easier to accuse others than to see our own faults, to condemn others for the speck in their eye rather than doing the hard work of removing the logs that obstruct our own vision (Matthew 7:1–5).

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